A few months ago, maybe many months ago, I read Charlotte’s Web to my kids. They loved it (of course they did, it’s a great story), and I did too. I had read it before, as a child, but of course there were things that I had forgotten, and still more that I had completely missed as a young reader. I like going back to books I have read before and finding the pieces that I previously had missed.
With Charlotte’s Web, there was still all the humor and the silliness of a spider convincing a farmer that his pig is “some pig” as well as all of the rest of what makes the story good. Charlotte is a great example of “mind over matter”, “size matters not” (credit: Yoda), and all the classic confidence boosters that fill children’s stories. But what was more meaningful to me now as an adult was not that. The story of Charlotte showed me something about our inner selves, our motivations, and our belief that doing good is worth it.
I asked myself what Charlotte’s motivation was. And by finding the answer to that question I learned a little more about my own motivations.
Motivations for Characters in Fiction
Before I get all the way into Charlotte’s head, I want to mention something about E.B. White. I know nothing about how he thought, but it always intrigues me when we as readers assign meanings or themes to an author’s words. The one question we all ask as we do that is if the author “really” meant that, or are we just inventing it from our own context. The answer is beyond me to give, but I like to think about it. Most of the time, I think the author meant it.
And now a circuitous route back towards Charlotte. As a writer, the reasons that a character performs a certain action, or foregoes a certain action, is crucial. It’s the only definition of their character, in fact. I might have a picture of who a character is in my head, or on my outline sheet, but if they don’t act that way in the story, the reader will end up with a completely different idea of who the character is. So, to stay consistent with who the character is supposed to be, I have to know, even if the reader will never explicitly see it, the motivation for each character. That way, when I put them in a situation, I don’t have to create or imagine their response, I just check their motivation, and they make their own choice. I just have to let it happen as I type.
Charlotte is a perfect character to examine for this. She had a description somewhere on Elwyn’s desk (that’s E.B. White’s first name, fyi, and it’s a great name), I’m sure of it. And when Charlotte faced a problem, he didn’t have to come up with something for her to do, she was already going to do it all on her own, he just had to write it down while it happened.
A Spider’s Motivation
So, let me share what I think is the most clarifying statement Charlotte makes that reveals her inner motivations (and she is quite verbose to say the least) when she says this to Wilbur:
You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that.
Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White
I really like that quote, and it says enough about Charlotte to get this discussion where I hope to go. The real question you might ask as you read Charlotte’s Web is “why is a spider helping a pig”? That is the most logical question if you were looking for a plot hole. Obviously this isn’t something that Elwyn observed in nature. But Charlotte already knows the skeptics will ask that question, and she has true to form preemptively answered the question. And in doing that, has given us something more profound to consider than just a silly story about some barnyard shenanigans.
Who is Charlotte besides just a simple grey spider? She’s me. She’s you, the reader. She’s any of us. She has lived a life that could be measured as one that matches any expectations. What I mean by that is, she has been exactly who we would have thought: she’s eaten bugs, spun webs, and acted just like a spider. This is no surprise since she is a spider. But then she meets Wilbur; and all at once she is more than just a spider.
No One Lives Forever
What Charlotte knows that no one else in her world seems to realize, is that her ultimate demise is near. It’s marked. She knows when it is. And as she views her coming death, she reflects a little on what her life has been. That is assuredly a human characteristic we all share. Of course she doesn’t regret her life as a spider, it’s who she is and Charlotte is pragmatic if she’s anything, but she does want to leave just a little bit more than a legacy of webs and flies behind. Wilbur gives her that chance.
How many of us might think back on our life with a twinge of regret, not for everything, but for missed opportunities, or that one friend that we never quite kept in touch with, or a thousand other examples of things that leave us wondering what might have been. For the negative memories, I would say it’s probably natural to feel a little bit like making up for it with a good deed or two before it’s too late. Whether you really can make up for a bad decision like that, I will leave for a different discussion.
But that’s what Charlotte is doing, as she clearly states. She finds that she likes Wilbur and decides to help him out, since she knows he’s otherwise fated to be a pork chop on a dinner plate in the near future. And in Wilbur, she sees a chance to possibly raise her life a little, as she puts it.
Our Life is More than Just a Life
So isn’t it true that a person’s life (any person’s life) is a little bit of a mess as well? Haven’t we all left behind something that we regret, at least once? And whether we have or not, Charlotte’s words still ring true to me. We all can stand to lift our life a little, and there is little better to do that than by lifting someone else. It’s no surprise to me that I missed that message as a kid reading a story about a spider and a pig; and it’s also no surprise that Elwyn put such an important message in his book, one that parents could glean as they read to their son or daughter by the night light at their bedside. It’s a strong author that can write on both levels as he did here.
In any case, I’m glad for having reread Charlotte’s Web and having found this and understood it better. Not just to remind me to try to lift someone else’s life as I go through my own, but also because of the reinforcing feeling it is to hear a positive message that matches my own philosophy of life.